LISTEN TO THE 'JUST' PEOPLE
The previous post went back 30 years; this one goes back a few days.
Last week, my daughter K and I visited a University that was high on her list for the coming academic year. We joined hundreds - thousands! - of sixth formers and anxious parents, herded like Student Loan sheep to be led by First Year drovers.
Our shepherd shared the two University facts he could remember from his own tour 12 months before, then pointed out some important architectural negatives:
"This is the Ferggedit Building. You can't go in there. On your left is the Ookairs Building. You can't go in there. Ahead is the Lordevanose Hall. You can't go in there. Not today, anyway."
The whistle stop walkabout left K in low spirits, which didn't do justice to a institution with a long history, high grade expectations and a gleaming Ofsted reputation.
"Anyway, this University doesn't seem to make Psychology a priority. It had the smallest building we've seen."
Two red rags to this paternal bull: a daughter's perception that we've travelled to see a small department, and a tour guide saying it was out of bounds.
"Let's go see it up close."
Somehow, we were going to get value from the day's petrol.
To be fair (to K) if you'd been whisked past the entrance gate and the huge rhododendron trees, you'd say the building was unimposing. Only when walking up the path to the main door could we see that it was much larger, extending both back and to the right.
Based purely on second impressions, this University was indeed investing in the subject and its research. I didn't ask K to confirm this out loud, but did see her smile twitch.
Two automatic doors slid sideways, opening to a bland reception. There was no-one behind the desk.
"See: we're not supposed to be here," said K. There's nothing as potent for a daughter than the chance to say 'I told you so'.
Well, I suggested, let's sit for a while and see what happens.
After a few minutes, a young woman appeared from a door behind the desk. She didn't see us at first, and sat behind a flat PC screen.
I stood, and the young woman startled.
"Hello. Nice to meet you. This is my daughter K. She's thinking about applying to your University to read Psychology."
She smiled at K, not at me. "Are you on the open day visit?"
"Well, you shouldn't really be here. You should be on the tour or at the main talk."
Another 'I told you so' look from K.
"Yes. We did that. But we didn't learn anything useful.That's why we came here. Hoping to talk to someone knowledgeable."
"About what?" The young woman wasn't unpleasant, just reticent. And busy.
K piped up with a couple of her prepared questions. The young woman's answers were concrete, if somewhat brusque. She tried to close us by offering a copy of the information leaflet K had already collected at check-in.
"You know now that this is K. I'm Paul. What's your name?"
"Laura." Her expression transmitted why is this middle-age Dad asking for my name?
"And how long have you been here?"
"In this job? Three years."
"So let me ask you a personal question Laura: how did you get the job?" I smiled; I meant well.
She looked at me, at K, then back at me. Do I answer? Why does he want to know? Oh hell, why not; it might get him out of the building.
"A friend was working here, and heard that an opening was coming up. So, I guess you could say that I knew someone."
"That's life, isn't it? Not what you know; who you know. And that's our problem right now.
"K wants to find out about the Uni, the Department, and what it's really like being an undergraduate here. But we don't know anyone. Except you. Right now you hold the keys to all that."
Laura brushed her hair over her right ear, a little uneasy in her chair. "I'm just an Administrator."
What did she say? 'Just an administrator'?
I have a theory. Most talk at work is small and dull, like a nil-nil draw in the Second Division. Chart it on an ECG, and it draws a straight line. No pulse.
But listen carefully, and you'll hear a 'blip' that's off the norm. Something emotive, something surpressed that's trying to escape. Something that needs to be heard. Name it, and it might unpack a deeper truth.
"Just? You're 'just' an Administrator?"
More hair-over-ear combing, more seat shuffling.
"Why did you say 'Just'?"
Laura looked at her desk, her hands, then at me. "That's my job. That's all I do - the Administrator for the First Year students."
"Just. All. You make it sound like it doesn't matter."
I wondered how she was being treated each day? I wondered how she was treating herself?
"If you didn't do your job, what would the impact be on the First Year students?"
"They'd be lost. Some of them are still lost now. But we'll get them sorted."
She smiled at me, shrugged her shoulders. Students away from home for the first time; seen it before, will see it again.
"So think of me and K as people who are lost too. I'm not asking you to break any rules - we don't want to get you into trouble. Just put us in contact with someone you think would be willing to help K."
A pause, and then Laura started typing on her PC. She scanned her screen, top to bottom, side to side. More typing, mouse moving, then she looked at K:
"There's a Facebook page set up for First Years. You have to be registered, which you can't as you're not here yet. But you can contact the administrators, both who are First Year undergrads. They might help you out." She writes on a Post-It note, and hands it to K.
K beamed with gratitude.
"Also, there aren't many people in here this afternoon, so if you go through that other door and up two flights, you'll find the coffee bar. There might be someone in to ask your questions. And you can see the lecture theatre and a couple of the classrooms and the behavioural labs. Don't be too long, but it'll be okay to have a look."
K's Christmas had arrived. We shook hands to say thank you and goodbye.
"Oh! Wait a moment." Laura opened a filing cabinet next to her desk. She handed K a bundle of A4 paper, with a bright blue cover front and back.
"That's the up-to-date First Year welcome pack. It's got details on the current syllabus, and an outline for the next two years. It might change for 2017, but a lot of it will be the same." She flicked through it, back-to-front. "That should be useful."
K crammed it into her bag. We all exchanged more thank yous, more handshakes. Then we went for a coffee on the second floor and looked around facilities where K might spend the next three years.
It's back to the top of her list.
A while later, in the car, K took the blue book out of her bag for a closer look.
Only then did we fully realise how helpful Laura had been. Inside the back cover were the names and email addresses of all the Faculty members and Admin team, leaders of the student body and interest groups.
That's what happens when we really see the 'Just' people in 'Just' jobs.
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